Puya berteroniana

Today’s entry is written by Bryant, Botany Photo of the Day work-study student:

I would like to thank David Midgley (aka Petrichor@Flickr) for supplying today’s image of Puya berteroniana. Puya berteroniana is one of the larger members of the Bromeliaceae, and it is native to the north-central region of the Andes (where it is known by the local residents as chagual). From a dense rosette of long and narrow leaves, a flower spike can emerge and grow to around 3m in height. The thin leaves have fishhook-shaped spines that cover the leaf margins. These spines have been known to entangle sheep, in some cases causing the animal to become trapped and die from starvation. Likely this is a defense mechanism to prevent foraging of its flowers/fruits, but perhaps it is predatory by adding nutrients to the soil near to the plant (there is no research to suggest this is the case, but it would be an interesting experiment). The species is commonly found in colonies on north-facing slopes, at elevations of 500m to 2500+m. The colours of the waxy petals can range from a bright turquoise to the deep blue so excellently pictured by David.

When I came across this image I was blown away by the unusual colour combination of the petals and stamens, the peculiarity of the morphology and the fact that it is a bromeliad. However, I was completely stunned to learn that this species and possibly other members of this genus (e.g., Puya chilensis and Puya raimondii) have been hypothesized to undergo the process of self-immolation or spontaneous combustion; see this earlier BPotD entry on a Puya by Eric La Fountaine. It does not appear that this hypothesis has been proven. However, there are frequent accounts of the charred remains of (typically) mature plants being encountered, with no fire damage in the surrounding vegetation. The why isn’t known either, though it is speculated that it may be an aid in germination. On the other hand, the largest member of the genus, Puya raimondii, is known to be burned by local peoples for warmth during the winter as there are few woody species that grow in the near-xeric conditions. There are also accounts of a tradition where locals light individuals/colonies of Puya sp. on fire for celebration and/or during the winter solstice. Another account describes local herders lighting fires around Puya berteroniana to burn off the spines on the leaves to provide forage for their livestock (primarily goats). Whether the cause of isolated fire in Puya berteroniana is anthropogenic in nature and/or the result of complex chemical reactions, Puya berteroniana and other members of its genus still pose several mysteries to the botanical world.

Puya berteroniana

18 responses to “Puya berteroniana”

  1. Katherine

    An interesting idea about the sheep or other animals getting caught by the thorns and ending up as fertilizer for the plants. I am not sure we think about how local animals might be valuable fertilizer, especially in areas of poor soil.
    I watched a local special about redwoods and salmon, where they theorized that one reason redwoods were able to grow so large in mountain areas with rocky, poor soil is that the salmon went up to those creeks (in great numbers in the old days) to spawn and die, thus bringing all the ocean nutrients they had absorbed up to the redwoods and releasing them there.

  2. Mirdza

    I was thrilled about the exotic beauty of this plant until I read about how it can kill sheep and goats by trapping them until they starve and then feeding on their remains. Lost the charm instantly although i know full well how bizarre and cruel nature can be. It is incredible what endless variety plants present both in outward appearance and function. thanks for this very interesting article and photo!

  3. Lilly

    It’s like an alien creature! cool!

  4. Richard

    A spontaneous combusting sheep eater!
    What a vicious violent plant, I hope it is kept well away from Australia & New Zealand, all we need is a plant the grabs a jumbuck then cooks it, their again . . . ?

  5. elizabeth a airhart

    we need to send this plant to a head doctor
    i guess they must sell it in the little shop of horrors
    fine looking plant and write up i hope my roses like me

  6. Jessica

    Wow, what strange and violent stories about this plant. Fascinating. I loooove the intense colors of the flowers. I took a look at the link to the photos of the turquoise variety. Also jaw-dropping gorgeous.
    Thanks for bringing this evil beauty to us.
    Ain’t Nature grand?

  7. Rosas

    Nice, but this is Puya alpestres, whith blue flowers.
    Puya berteroana is a very common in North Chile, but Its flowers
    Are waxy pale green

  8. Susan Gustavson

    I saw this plant in full bloom at the Huntington Garden, and purchased one from Roger Gossler in Springfield OR. I can believe the story of trapping sheep as it was the most ferocious plant I’ve ever encountered, save maybe the chollas. I actually got it to bloom in Oregon, but one year I just couldn’t face wresting it into a protected spot for the winter–always getting lacerated somehow–and it was no more. The flower colors are so incredible.

  9. Janeal Thompson

    Interesting plant, beautiful photograph. Thank you.

  10. wendy

    I remember not long ago the huge hullaballoo over flesheating tomatoes as announced in some paper. It all added up to sticky hairs on the stems which may or may not have caught a few fruit flies and left them to die on the stems. This huge protein resource landing ultimately in the soil below the plant was then theorized to be an intentional act on the part of a tomato plant to increase its soil fertility. I am really a lot more impressed by the ambition of Puyas.
    Could the self-immolation possibly be a result of the guilty conscience a Puya feels upon using such evil means to achieve a more filling diet?

  11. elizabeth a airhart

    wendy i will have nightmares after reading your comment
    even dean koontz has written a book about this one
    what a way to end 2012 i wonder if it lives on a fiscal cliff

  12. David Martin

    An impressive plant, regardless of spontaneous puya combustion. Another reminder of just what an astonishing family the bromeliads are.

  13. Joyce in Toronto

    Happy New Year!!

  14. lynn

    Fascinating – maybe as much for the comments it evokes as for the post. Thanks!

  15. elizabeth a airhart

    happy new year to you all where ever you are
    i live in florida usa hopeing every one has a better year

  16. Daniel Mosquin

    Rosas, I’m not certain how much flower colour comes into play in differentiating the two species. From what few keys I could find, there is an overall difference in size (particularly height of plant, size of floral bracts), but neither of these are evident from this photograph (though if this photograph was taken standing up, then one supposes it would be the taller P. berteroniana).

  17. Diane Brown

    I am not so far from Toronto and was listening on line to a garden program last week with Charlie Dobbin as host.
    She talked about this plant and so of course I had to look it up
    I am Canadian yes, but have had for the past 14 years a home in Ft Myers FLorida where I have some fine gardens as well and Bromeliads have become one of my favourites as they look good even when I get back down from six months in Canada.
    This is a type of Bromeliad And I see there are many variations Am going to have a look see if I might introduce something unique, something else unique, into my gardens there.

  18. Maria in Finland

    Is it possible to make it grow faster and mature faster?
    I sew the seeds of this lovely plant last spring, and now I feel cheated by the website I bought it from (edited by Daniel — removed link, since it doesn’t seem to be working anyway), who never wrote it would take at least 6-8 years to bear the flowers.
    Some plants even take 100 years before they will bear flowers I’ve read.
    So my question to you is, do you know how I can make my one year old plant grow faster? And is there any shortcut to make it bear flowers earlier than within 6-8 years?
    Thanks in advance!

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